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Bacteria-printed solar cells are able to generate electricity

Researchers at Imperial College London have used an inkjet printer to turn cyanobacteria into solar cells, a study published in the journal Nature Communications reports.

Cyanobacteria are unique micro-organisms that have been on the Earth for billions of years. They are photosynthetic organisms that use sunlight to create energy. Though that energy is a food source for the bacteria, it also can be harnessed in different ways. In the study, the team used it to turn the tiny organisms into solar cells that are able to generate electricity in both dark and light conditions.

In the past, the problem with solar cells is that they need constant sunlight to generate electricity. The bacteria get around that issue, which greatly increases the cell’s applications and creates an environment-friendly source of power.

“Our biophotovoltaic device is biodegradable and in the future could serve as a disposable solar panel and battery that can decompose in our composts or gardens,” said study co-author Marin Sawa, a researcher in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London, in a statement. “Cheap, accessible, environmentally friendly, biodegradable batteries without any heavy metals and plastics – this is what we and our environment really need but don’t have just yet, and our work has shown that it is possible to have that,” Sawa added.

Though biophotovoltaic cells are efficient, they are expensive and require a lot of labor to create. That makes them difficult to build on a large scale.

The researchers in the study overcame that issue by using a common inkjet printer to print the cells on paper. First, they embedded the cyanobacteria onto an electrode surface from a bulky liquid reservoir. Then, they developed a cyanobacteria ink that can be printed onto electrically conductive carbon nanotube. That gave them a way to create large amounts of living bacteria in a relatively short amount of time.

The team states the bacteria live throughout the entire process, which means they can still perform photosynthesis, and the electricity they generate can be harvested over a 100-hour period.

“A bio-solar panel made in this way, the approximate size of an iPad, could power a simple digital clock, and in separate experiments, a small LED light bulb,” the team wrote, according to International Business Times.

While the process can only generate a small amount of energy, it has a lot of potential. Scientists hope that bacteria could one day be used to power much more than just a clock. Future studies will hopefully tap into greater applications.

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